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Memorial Service Honors Victims Of Spanish Train Crash


A memorial service today in Spain to remember the victims of the country's worst rail disaster in decades. An American passenger died in a hospital over the weekend, bringing the death toll to 79. The train was carrying more than 200 passengers from Madrid when it derailed in northwestern Spain last Wednesday night.

Reporter Lauren Frayer is following developments from Madrid, and she joins me now. And, Lauren, tell us a bit more about this memorial mass tonight at the - that massive, soaring cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: This cathedral was festooned for one of the biggest festivals of the year in Galicia, and instead it's hosting funerals. This funeral was held in Santiago de Compostela. It's the largest city in Galicia, the capital, and the city closest to where this train derailed.

The Spanish prime minister, who happens to have been born in Santiago, was there for it, as are several members of the Spanish royal family. The king and queen visited late last week in full funeral garb, in black dress. The whole country observed three days of mourning, and flags here are still at half-staff.

Makeshift memorials are popping up in front of the cathedral. Flowers, photographs, handwritten notes and black ribbons have been tied on empty festival venues where concerts and parades were supposed to have been held this week.

BLOCK: And, Lauren, Santiago is a famed pilgrimage site for Catholics. And as I understand it, a lot of people on that train, who were pilgrims themselves, were going to that festival that you're talking about.

FRAYER: That's right. The Camino de Santiago, which is an ancient pilgrimage route that stretches the width of Northern Spain. It draws tens of thousands of pilgrims, Spaniards and foreigners, people from all over the world literally walk the ground for hundreds of miles to arrive at this cathedral. And that's exactly where this funeral mass is now being held.

BLOCK: Well, what's the latest on the investigation, Lauren, in particular, a lot of questions being raised about the driver of this train?

FRAYER: That's right. The 52-year-old driver did survive. His name is Francisco Garzon. He's a 30-year veteran of the Spanish train company Renfe, 10 of those years as a driver. He's apparently driven that stretch of track dozens, if not hundreds of times before, and he did have a clean safety record. However, initial indications are that he was going too fast. In fact, more than twice the recommended speed for that curvy section of track. And we have that estimate from surveillance video. We won't know the exact speed until data from the so-called black box is unveiled. And that's scheduled to happen tomorrow.

There have also been reports from the first witnesses on the scene. These are people from the neighborhood who heard the crash and ran to help. And some of them have said that the driver was screaming, obviously panicked, saying that he had tried to apply the brakes but was going too fast.

We haven't heard from the driver himself. He was questioned by a judge on Sunday for several hours. And some Spanish media are quoting unnamed judicial sources as saying the driver took responsibility for the crash and admitted recklessness, saying that he was distracted, he lost track of where he was and he didn't brake in time. But we haven't heard that yet directly from him.

BLOCK: Well, the driver has now been provisionally charged in court, but he's no longer in custody, right?

FRAYER: That's right. He was arrested hours after the crash and has since been released on bail. He's had his passport and his train driver's license confiscated. He has to check in with police every week.

Oh, he's not going to be driving any train in the foreseeable future, but he was free to go home. Authorities apparently decided he wasn't a flight risk. He does face 79 counts of reckless homicide, and that's one charge for every victim. There is still upwards of 70 people in the hospital, and many of them are in critical condition.

BLOCK: So, Lauren, there are questions being raised about the driver, also questions being raised about the stretch of track where this crash occurred.

FRAYER: This train that derailed was the Alvia train. It's sort of a hybrid type that runs on both high-speed new tracks and older tracks. So this isn't a high-speed bullet train that goes more than 200 miles an hour, but it can still go around 115 miles an hour. And the safety system that involves overriding the driver's action is only on those high-speed tracks, the newest tracks. And apparently, this stretch of track on the curve was an older track that didn't have that ability to override the driver's actions.

So one of the things that investigators are looking at is what warnings were in place - flashing lights, radio warnings - to alert the driver to brake and why those warnings apparently went unheeded.

BLOCK: OK. Lauren Frayer in Madrid. Lauren, thanks very much.

FRAYER: Thank you.



You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.
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